When medical research is outdated, it’s the patients who pay

Medical research can now be more person-focused than ever, writes Alex Irving, communications director at Patients Campaigning For Cures.

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When Thomas Huxley and colleagues went head-to-head with Bishop Wilberforce in the ‘Great Debate’ of 1860, at the British Science Association annual meeting, it was a major nail in the coffin for creationism and triggered widespread public acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Since then, the Theory of Evolution has itself evolved, and to such a degree that medical experts are calling for a second Great Debate, to settle an equally vital question for the scientific community – with seismic consequences for patients in need of effective treatments and cures.

Chronic diseases are rising rapidly. For example, cancer cases in the UK are predicted to rise from 2.5 million in 2015 to four million by 2030 – with an annual cost to the UK economy that currently exceeds £15bn. With so much at stake, we at Patients Campaigning For Cures, welcome the call for rigorous scientific Debate, with growing support at Westminster from over a hundred cross-party MPs (representing seven million UK constituents).

What is outdated and failing medical research?

The majority of research funds are still directed towards animal models of human patients – despite animals now shown to be entirely failing as predictive models of human response to drugs and disease.

Current medical understanding explains why we need to stop funding outdated Victorian principles that ignore critical complex species differences, and to redirect valuable finance towards human-based research, which has a proven track record of success.

Current science shows us how to succeed

Thanks to the scientific breakthroughs made in the early 2000s by the Human Genome Project, we now understand that men and women can respond very differently to drugs and disease, as do different ethnic groups. And we know that identical twins do not always suffer from the same diseases, or react in the same way to a drug, because of very small differences in their genetic makeups. All of which is explained by advances in our knowledge of evolutionary biology and genetics.

The genome project advanced our understanding that the process of evolution does not consist solely of adding new genes to make a new species. Together with other similar achievements, the project informed us that individual humans differ from each other for many of the same reasons that species differ from each other. For example, the same gene can be turned off in one individual but turned on (expressed) in another. During development, mice have turned on the gene that allows them to grow a tail, while humans usually have it turned off. Changes like this can lead to new species – or predispose one individual to a disease while another does not suffer from that illness.

The Human Genome Project also explained that differences between a human and a rat, dog, or monkey are much greater than the differences amongst humans. Very small differences in the genetic makeup between species mean that what happens when a monkey is infected with HIV is very different from what happens when humans are infected. This also explains why medicines that are safe and effective in mice kill or maim humans – and vice versa. Humans can share 99 per cent of their genetic makeup with another species and yet still demonstrate profound differences in terms of responses to drugs and disease. With 90 per cent of drugs that looked promising in animals failing at the human clinical trial stage, pharmaceutical companies openly and often acknowledge the very costly lack of predictive value animal models have in their drug development process.

Personalized medicine means matching the correct drug to the patient in order to maximize efficacy while minimizing side effects. There are now over 100 medicines linked to specific genes, and patients can be tested for those genes before being given those drugs. Cancer therapies can be based on a patient’s genome instead of a one-size-fits-all solution. Studies in humans have shown that children with certain genes require more medicine for post-operative pain control. Many diseases are now treated based on such unique genetic information. All of this is in stark contrast to testing on completely different species.

Today there is a rapid growth in innovative human-relevant research models, harnessing a range of contemporary digital and biotechnologies, collectively known as Non-Animal Technologies (NATs). Innovate UK has identified NATs as emerging science that could help drive future UK economic growth, with the global market expected to be worth billions. Redirecting funding towards human-based medical research is a win-win for individual patients and society as a whole.

The first step towards vital medical research reform is to settle the science publicly – and what better way than to hold the sequel to the Huxley-Wilberforce debate? We propose Great Debate Two: between Dr. Ray Greek, the leading expert against animal models of human responses to drugs and disease – who has already agreed to participate – and the neurobiologist and noted proponent of animal-based research, Professor Colin Blakemore.

We therefore welcome this Open Letter to Professor Blakemore, and hope that he will respond positively.

Open letter:

Professor Colin Blakemore, 

 

A freedom of information request provided your letter to the Planning Inspectorate, recommending the extension of a Beagle Breeding Farm at B&K Universal in Grimston Hull. The farm will purpose breed around 2,000 dogs annually, destined for painful and traumatic laboratory experiments - typically involving dogs being force-fed chemicals in experiments lasting 90 days with no pain relief or anaesthetic. According to current medical knowledge the results of such experiments are not capable of predicting the responses of human patients, a position highlighted by The British Medical Journal in its Editor’s Choice, June 2014.

 

Over 100 MPs, to date, have signed Parliamentary EDMs to hear this evidence in a public scientific debate, overseen by independent judges from the relevant fields of scientific expertise. In your letter, you claim to have “always tried to engage with those who oppose animal research and take proper account of their objections”, and that it is “unacceptable” that research “is impeded or prevented by extreme action”. We therefore call upon you to agree to participate in the thorough scientific debate, as called for by the Parliamentary EDMs and their growing support. 

 

Yours sincerely,

 

Ricky Gervais

Chris Packham

Peter Egan 

Dr Jane Goodall DBE

Jane Fallon

Lesley Nicol

Jill Robinson MBE

Rumer

Rick Wakeman

 

This Open Letter will remain active at www.forlifeonearth.org, where further public figures can sign it.